The Saints and Sinners Who Shaped America

“America is who she is because of the Catholic Church.”

(photo: Register Files)

Over the centuries, people of faith have come to American shores in search of freedom, prosperity, and hope. At a time when religious liberty and conscience rights are under attack, Brian Burch, president of Catholic Vote, and author Emily Stimpson Chapman wanted to remind Americans of our heritage. Together they wrote The American Catholic Almanac: A Daily Reader of Patriots, Saints, Rogues and Ordinary People Who Changed the United States. The book is an ambitious collection of 365 stories about saints and sinners, priests and politicians and ordinary citizens who helped to shape American history.

Stories in The American Catholic Almanac are about all kinds of Catholics, not only saints but also those who are definitely not “canonizable.” There are people, for example, such as Fr. Robert Drinan, who was pro-abortion, and gangster Al Capone. Both saints and sinners affected the direction of America, so they mattered to American history – and they mattered to God.

Three years after The American Catholic Almanac was first released, Image Books is launching a new paperback edition of the daily reader. The Register talked with co-author Emily Stimpson Chapman about the project, and about some of her favorite stories.


365 Days! Where did you find the inspiration for the stories in this book?

It was crazy! We had eight months to put it all together. We were blessed to have a research assistant, Tom Crowe; and Tom had a really big calendar. It was his job to fill as many spaces as he could. Once we found the obvious stuff, including saints and venerables, politicians, Supreme Court justices, and things just fell into place: You'd be researching one topic and something else would come up. It was like following a rabbit hole into American Catholic history!

And the Holy Spirit definitely helped. As we neared the end, there would be nothing on one date – and randomly, we would find something that would fit on that day. We needed to find something that would fit on each of the 365 days of the year. In the end, we ended up with so many more stories that we've actually considered writing a second volume.


Do you have favorites among the historical characters whose stories you tell in the book?

Well, not exactly – I love all the stories! But here are a few who come to mind:

Fr. Frederick Baraga. He was a wonderful Slovenian priest. He already knew half a dozen languages when he arrived in the United States as a newly ordained priest. His bishop said, “Learn the Ottawa language so we can send you there.” He did that, and he was assigned to minister to the Ottawa tribe in northern Michigan. They receive as much as 300 inches of snow each year there, so he traveled from village to village on snowshoes. Father Baraga, who later was ordained a bishop, translated a catechism and a dictionary into the Ottawa language, making it possible for the tribe to learn from the original sources. It was he who persuaded Fr. John Neumann to come to America as a very young missionary priest.

The Marquis de Lafayette. The Marquis de Lafayette, a flamboyant Frenchman who makes an appearance in the Broadway musical Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette was a friend to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and fought on the side of the United States in the Revolutionary War. He was a Catholic, although perhaps not the best Catholic: He didn't take his faith seriously and, for example, he left his wife for years at a time.

Fr. Peter Whelan. Father Whelan was a priest from Savannah, Georgia, during the Civil War. Near the end of the war, most of the prisoners from the North were being herded into the prison at Andersonville. Conditions in the prison were terrible: More than 30,000 prisoners were crowded into a space designed for 5,000. The river was used both for drinking water, and as a latrine. Lawlessness, filth, disease, crime – every sorrow known to man was taking place in this tiny prison. When a missionary priest passed through and saw the conditions, he said that a priest was needed at the prison. Father Whelan was ready; and although the prison was miserably hot, he stayed until the last prisoners were gone – administering Last Rites, settling feuds and disputes, and serving as peacemaker. When he learned that the Confederate Army was releasing the Northern prisoners and sending them out without food or money, he borrowed money to have bread baked. Father Whelan contracted tuberculosis while serving at the camp – and eventually died of the disease. He was called the “angel of Andersonville” and hundreds of prisoners risked their lives to attend his funeral.

Bishop Patrick Manoque. Patrick Manoque came to America with his Irish immigrant family, and after his parents died, he cared for his brothers and sisters. He needed money, and one way he could get it would be to dig for gold in the California Gold Rush. Manoque was successful – he struck it rich, and he used the money to support his family and to pay for his seminary studies. He studied in France, then returned to America and became a missionary priest in Nevada.

Father Manoque was a big, burly man over six feet tall. In the book, I tell the story of a night when a woman was dying and wanted to confess to a priest; but her husband, who was staunchly anti-Catholic, refused to let him in. But Father Manoque had to be the priest he needed to be in that age. He punched the man, knocking him to the ground, then entered the house to hear the woman's confession. When he came out, the man was sitting there dazed; he had been hit by a priest!

Father Manoque was eventually named Bishop of Sacramento. There, he called upon his friends from his mining days to help finance the construction of a cathedral. He is a great example of the new evangelization.

Margaret Haughery. A philanthropist who earned the title “the mother of the orphans,” Margaret Haughery was an Irish immigrant who arrived in the U.S. with her parents. Soon after coming to America, her parents died; and Margaret married and moved with her husband to New Orleans. When her husband and newborn daughter also died, Margaret was left in the city with no friends. Needing to make a living, she went to work in a laundry. There, as she sat at the window ironing, she often saw orphans from a nearby orphanage playing outside. Margaret began to save her pennies to give to the Sisters who ran the orphanage; and eventually, she saved enough to buy a few cows and she began to sell their milk, donating all proceeds to help the orphans. Although she was an illiterate, formerly penniless woman, when she died, Margaret was given a state funeral. The Pope, honoring her contributions, sent the crucifix which was set atop her casket.

Venerable Henriette Delille. Henriette Delille was of mixed race; her mother was a white man's mistress. She was raised to become a white man's mistress herself; but she fell in love with Jesus and entered the convent instead. She founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans. Delille is representative of a long and venerable tradition of African-American Catholics.

Father Nelson Baker. Nelson Baker managed his father's grainery and feed store. He saved his earnings until he was finally able to enter the seminary. He had a fatherly heart, and began taking in orphans – then opened a home for mothers and babies. At the time, mothers were sometimes throwing their unwanted babies into a ravine; but at Father Baker's home for mothers and babies, there was always a little bassinet near the door, and the door was left unlocked throughout the night.

Another of Father Baker's accomplishments: He struck oil, and used the profits to construct a magnificent basilica. His life demonstrated the balance between social justice and liturgy and beauty. He desired to see God worshipped in a meaningful way, and to care for those in need; to give God the best, and to love people the best.

Andy Warhol. Warhol was raised a Byzantine Rite Catholic in Pittsburgh. He had a conflicted life: a tortured soul living on the edge of the counter-culture, struggling with same-sex attraction. He struggled with things (such as alcohol and drugs) which were not honoring to God; yet he had a great love of Mary, the Mother of God. Andy Warhol attended daily Mass, but did not receive communion, perhaps because of his lifestyle. He volunteered at his parish's soup kitchen, and he paid for his nephew to attend seminary, considering that one of the best things he'd accomplished in his lifetime.

The Pope's Stone. This last entry is not a person at all, but an inanimate object. The Pope's Stone was a gift to the United States, and was inset into the Washington Monument when it was first built. The Do Nothings, however, were anti-Catholic and worried that it was part of a papal plot to take over America. They broke into the grounds, bound and gagged the night watchman, stole the stone and dumped it into the Potomac River. Twenty years later, a guy started talking in a bar. “If you go to a certain place in the river,” he said, “you might find something there.” The stone was retrieved, and workmen were getting ready to install it in the Monument, when it was stolen again. Perhaps it was dropped back into the river, or broken into pieces; but it was never seen again. In 1980, Pope John Paul II donated another stone; and that one is in the Washington Monument.


What would you like people to take away from the book?

Most importantly, I hope people will know and remember who these people were – the brave people who sacrificed much so that we can be Catholic in America. They are our fathers and mothers, the ordinary people who fought Supreme Court cases, advocated for the immigrants, or made it possible for us to have the churches and parishes and schools.

Secondly, I hope people will understand how the Catholic Church has been an integral part of American history – for good and for ill. America is who she is because of the Catholic Church.


What are you working on now?

I'm writing the Endow studies. I've just completed my second study and am beginning the third, on Catherine of Siena. It will be my great privilege to tell her story.

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